U.S. citizens are losing faith in democratic institutions. According to Gallup polling during January 2nd through the 15th, only 23% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing . While approval and legitimacy certainly are not synonymous, continuing levels of high disapproval pose a threat to the legitimacy of Congress, and the actions it takes. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss in their How Democracies Die, no matter what the Constitution of the United States says, the attitudes of everyday citizens, and political elites in particular, are vital to the longevity of democracy. In addition to concerns regarding the U.S. Congress, the presidency itself has been subject to doubts regarding its legitimacy since the 1992 election, a factor that has contributed to the breakdown of the two norms which Levitsky and Ziblatt view as critical to American democracy: mutual tolerance and institutional forebearance.
Within the context of democracy in the United States, mutual tolerance is the practice of disagreeing and disliking your political rivals, while still viewing them as legitimate politicians and representatives. In the eyes of a political party, the loss of an election is still undesirable, but the victory of their opponents is not seen as an existential threat. In terms of institutional forebearance, for the purpose of checking and balancing one another, each branch of the American government has extensive powers through the constitution, particularly for the legislative and executive branches, and through custom, especially for the judicial branch. If one segment of government used its checks to their fullest extent, a single faction would be able to wreak havoc on the day-to-day process of governing the country. In recent years, rhetoric throughout American politics has shifted towards viewing the election of political rivals as a threat to the nation and government dysfunction has decreased as different branches use their powers to stifle the others, such as the prevention of Obama’s last Supreme Court nomination by the Republican controlled Senate.
One contributing factor to the erosion of these two norms is the perceived illegitimacy of the past four presidents. As Andres Martinez observed in a 2017 piece for the Washington Post: Bill Clinton was seen by Republicans as illegitimate due to his failure to secure a majority of the popular vote. George W. Bush was seen by Democrats as illegitimate for his failure to secure a majority of the popular vote and due to the actions of the Supreme Court. Barack Obama was seen as illegitimate by some Republicans due to the rumors surrounding his birth certificate. Most recently, Donald Trump has been seen as illegitimate by Democrats due to his failure to secure the popular vote . This consistent trend of perceived illegitimacy of the individuals who hold the highest office in the land provides an excuse for politicians to break the norms of mutual toleration and institutional restraint. Most recently with Donald Trump, the questions regarding foreign interference into the 2016 election led to widespread protests following the election results, with #notmypresident reflecting a failure in the toleration of the electoral success of an ideological opponent. In terms of institutional restraint, questions of legitimacy, however grounded in reality or not they may be, help explain why two of the last four presidents have been impeached. It has also helped Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell justify preventing former President Barack Obama from filling a Supreme Court vacancy. Overall, the vital norms of American democracy identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt appear to have been damaged at least in part by legitimacy concerns regarding the elections of Presidents for almost 30 years. Gallup. “Congress and the Public.” Gallup.com. Gallup, Inc., January 25, 2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx.
 Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. London: Penguin Books, 2019.